The majestic peak of Alto del Perdón, also known as the Mount of Forgiveness, overlooks one of the most idyllic and picturesque countrysides in all of Spain. Located on the storied Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, between Pamplona and the town of Puente la Reina, Alto del Perdón basks in brilliant sunshine. An eye-catching metal sculpture, erected to honor past, present, and future pilgrims, sits at the top of the mount. The pilgrimage route itself leads to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where Catholic lore states that remains of the Apostle Saint James the Great lie. The Camino is always filled with pilgrims determined to complete the 500-mile journey to on foot. It appears to be no more than a chalky and rocky dirt trail. But the trail itself is revered as a spiritual journey, one that will open the pilgrim’s heart and mind to some long-awaited truth.
Alto del Perdón does not, at first glance, seem like the kind of setting in which to open a traditional ghost story. But C.S. O’Cinneide did not set out the write a traditional ghost story with her debut novel, Petra’s Ghost, out now from Dundurn Press. Though O’Cinneide draws upon both travel tales and ghost stories for her debut, Petra’s Ghost is a refreshing spin on both of these classic narratives. (You can learn more about O’Cinneide’s inspiration for her novel by checking out the interview I conducted with her.) The result is an engrossing, creepy tale of the people who run away from the dark secrets haunting them and seek forgiveness on the Camino.
As I profiled in my most anticipated novels of 2019 post, Petra’s Ghost is the story of Irish ex-pat Daniel, who aims scatter the ashes of his recently-deceased wife Petra once he reaches the end of the Camino. Like so many pilgrims, Daniel carries significant guilt surrounding recent events in his life. But unlike many others, his guilt centers around the somewhat suspicious circumstances of his beloved wife’s passing. Soon after the news that an unaccompanied young woman has disappeared from the Camino, Daniel befriends a young woman named Ginny, who is also fleeing something in her past. Together they walk the Camino, carrying their own secrets. And they may or may not be pursued by the ghost of Petra.
My favorite part of Petra’s Ghost was the fresh premise. As a 30-something woman, I am the frequent target reader of many travel memoirs and novels—Wild, Eat Pray Love, Wanderlust, etc. While those books are wonderfully written and impart a great deal of wisdom, I find that they all kind of do the same thing. They start to run together. They become boring. I find myself yearning for something else, something not as totally uplifting, confident, and exuberantly curious about the world. Life isn’t always that way, and I don’t always want a book like that.
Cue Petra’s Ghost, which uses spooky elements and unsettling plot developments to breathe a great deal of new life into the travel novel. It’s the kind of genre-melding that works very well. In fact, pairing ghost stories with a travel tale works so well here that it’s a wonder that it’s not a more popular pairing.
Petra’s Ghost also benefits from a fully rendered protagonist. A lot of time and care went into fleshing out Daniel as a character, and it shows. His pain and grief feel real and, consequently, compelling. The way he struggles in the aftermath of Petra’s passing makes him relatable. You can’t help but root for him. Additionally, Ginny’s character is created with care and attention to detail, such that she reads like a person and avoids falling into tired stereotypes like Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Thank God.
However, since the Camino is so essential to Petra’s Ghost, I felt like I was missing out on some telling references and deeper nuance because I am not Catholic (I grew up Episcopalian or “Catholic Lite”). Nor did I know much about the pilgrimage before reading the story. I appreciate Ginny’s helpful bits of exposition sprinkled throughout, which explain important historical points about churches and relics in as unobtrusive a way as possible, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was failing to grasp a great deal of hidden meaning. It is a testament to the story, however, that I felt compelled to research The Camino de Santiago after finishing Petra’s Ghost.
As far as the pace of the book went, Petra’s Ghost is a very quick read, making it the perfect book to pick up during these last few summer days. But, in streamlining the story, the novel failed to develop certain secondary elements and thus sacrificed potentially compelling material. This is most apparent with the less-than-satisfyingly rendered supporting characters. Many of these characters seemed to hold a great deal of importance, yet they were a little one-dimensional and shallow. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more development given to a certain Dutchman and Englishman, especially since the protagonists are so richly painted.
Additionally, while Daniel and Ginny read like fully formed characters with strengths and flaws and petty quirks and deep insecurities, their dynamic seemed a little under-baked. There were moments where I didn’t quite understand why Daniel put up with Ginny’s sometimes erratic behavior or why Ginny would pick Daniel as a walking partner. I understand that, from a thematic standpoint, their dynamic is supposed to feel repetitive and cyclical, but reading it as executed left a little bit to be desired.
Again, it’s a testament to the strength of the story and the characters that I cared. I liked what I read, and I wanted more.
Lastly, as a horror fan, I wish Petra’s Ghost had been, well, more horrific and nightmarish. There were a few very well-executed moments of creepy, what-the-hell horror. I won’t soon forget them, particularly because they tended to pop up in the most unexpected moments, which created a deliciously disturbing and unsettling effect. I just wanted more! I recognize that this is a matter of taste and not of skill; even still horror fans should know that Petra’s Ghost is more spooky than terrifying and much more atmospheric than scary. In short, think of Petra’s Ghost as a dark thriller with supernatural elements rather than a horror novel.
On the whole, Petra’s Ghost is an engaging ghost story about loss and being lost, set in a location laden with symbolism, and populated with two fascinating protagonists. I recommend it for those readers who are craving a quick and chill-inducing read before the end of the summer but who don’t necessarily enjoy straight horror. And I look forward to what C.S. O’Cinneide writes next.
Cover Image Source: El Camino con Correos